And he would tell her if she asked him—God, he was so tired. But that wasn’t really it, what bothered him the most, what he felt most robbed of, were those first moments of consciousness, when the world was not yet real. He wanted to open his eyes, he’d tell her, and be no one for one minute, for two minutes, feel only the most ephemeral connection to his life, to himself, float somewhere outside of everything until his dream life slipped away and he saw her blond hair spread across her pillow, a sight which was as clear, as familiar to him as seeing his own face in the mirror. Then, he’d press the details into focus again, like slipping on a pair of eyeglasses that turned him into himself again.
Now, this insomnia—it was unrelenting, grim lucidity for him. Every minute of his life fueled by a burnt pot of coffee. It was exhausting to be himself so much of the time. Here, in his bedroom, everything lined up around him, more of his inescapable life: the fingerprint smudged cream phone on the nightstand, the to-do list on the dresser, the cherry-wood bedroom set lining the perimeter of the bedroom walls like watchmen. Here everything was: dresser dresser nightstand headboard nightstand, polished, shining with permanence, the heavy furniture wearing deeper grooves into the blue carpeting every single damn day. Everything a beating heart pulsing you you you.
If Patricia had asked, he would tell her he was not used to this kind of personal, bodily betrayal. He wanted to tell her he couldn’t stand it. Twenty-five years ago, (and she knew this, after all, wasn’t she his witness?) when he was still a resident, when he was still a young man, he had learned to treat sleep the way a starving man would a hot meal: it was a rare and precious gift, and any amount of continuous, undisturbed unconsciousness should be hoarded, guarded over with sharp elbows and unrelenting vigilance. He had his beliefs about insomnia, private, tight-lipped, beliefs: it was an ailment he limited to the mentally infirm, the physically ill, and the lazy. Insomnia, he’d liked to say, was not meant for someone like him, someone too tired for it. And hadn’t he been strong then, so strong, something as weak as sleeplessness would never get him. Oh. But. He should not have been so quick to judge. What he hadn’t known before, what had never even occurred to him when he was young and so arrogant, and what was really the worst thing about it, was the horrible sense of rejection. Up all night, performing inner monologues, soliloquies, really, some of his mind’s most dramatic performances, with even the dog refusing to be a witness to it. He was discarded, he’d tell her, cast out of the natural order of things, the world’s rhythm, sleeping and rising and working and resting—banished from all of this now.
But this didn’t matter. All of this was an embarrassment anyway, these ideas. Rejection and insomnia and being outside of things—he had spent half of his life like this, being up while the rest of the world slept, why start crying about it now. More than half his life, really— almost every night, a thousand years and always the same night—called back to the same place, waking up and leaving his bed and walking the tiled hallways of Labor and Delivery in the middle of the night when the ward seemed to take on an underwater, greenish cast, reminding Ali of being in a submarine deep in the sea. Stand at the steel sink and scrub his hands and his arms and put on his hospital scrubs and gown and gloves and his mask and walk into the labor room and then he was the doctor. The patient would look at him, sometimes fixing him with a gaze that was nothing but distilled purpose and focus, and sometimes looking at him with bleary-eyed despair, but always, it seemed to him, at least a bit relieved to see him and he would tell her he was here to help her deliver her baby. And then, even with the loneliness that ran through him, even when he missed his wife and his kids and his own warm bed, he had almost always felt a part of the world.
But maybe that was wrong. Could he ask Patricia this? Because when he really thought about it, he had been nothing more than a career fugitive. He’d spent his life hustling, stumbling around in the middle of the night, reminding himself to answer the phone in the right language— always in English never ever in Farsi—(don’t let the hospital operators think there was something wrong with him), training to put his clothes on in the dark, and leaving the house quietly and quickly like a permanent traveler, passing through the night like a shadow. And all of those years tending to his patients, who was he to them but an accented stranger with capable, steady hands, a pair of hazel eyes peering out behind his hospital mask? Soon forgotten, if ever even noticed in the first place. And they had found him, these people, the Mission Saviors, coming out of nowhere, as if they’d known about him all along. No. That was impossible, of course, Patricia would tell him as much if he’d told her this.
But Patricia remained asleep, her back rising and falling as coolly, as indifferently as a stranger’s. When they’d first met, twenty-five years ago, they were always listening for each other. Walking the halls of St. Mary’s, Patricia had always been listening, giving him the right words when his English had been so broken, no one could understand him except for her. She’d stand just behind him in the lounge, looking down to pretend stirring her coffee, all the while whispering the words, the right phrases he always got wrong whenever he talked to Dr. Hawkes, his attending, that smart, kind, elegant man—so embarrassing to speak so badly in front of him. And she knew it too, without Ali ever having to tell her. Or she’d catch his eye, give the slightest shake of her head, remind him of the chief resident who couldn’t be trusted, the one who’d make mistakes and pin it on Ali. Even when working on another floor, somehow, suddenly, there she was, at the elevator banks, in the stairwell, blond hair shining under her white nurse’s cap, touch the sleeve of his white doctor’s coat, “McKenzie’s drunk. Don’t get stuck in the O.R. covering for him.” Or, “Go sleep in the recovery room for twenty minutes. No one’s there today.” Then she’d be gone again, like a friendly, watchful spirit. That’s how they used to be. Her eyes used to always want to watch for him, and when they talked, no matter what it was about, they always leaned into each other, speaking softly in half-sentences, like spies. They understood each other so perfectly when they had so little time to chatter.
It had been a long time since they had talked like this, though, and Patricia’s eyes never seemed to be watching for him anymore. She didn’t think he listened to her enough, took her advice seriously anymore. She wanted him to go to the clinic and be completely invisible, shrink inside himself and hide in front of the hayfehnoons and close his eyes and not say anything to them and just run inside the building like a coward, feeling their words run down the back of his neck like dirty water dripping from a gutter.
Last month, one night after dinner, she’d gripped one of his arms in her hand and squeezed hard.
“Listen,” she’d said. “I don’t want to hear anymore of your ideas—retaliation or anything. You need to act like they’re just not there. And you need to just walk through the parking lot and you don’t see them and you don’t hear them and you don’t think about them. And if you can’t do this I want you to hear my voice in your head, hear the kids’ voices,” and here she pressed down hard on his arm to make sure he was listening to her, “and for once in your life show me that you can listen to me.”
And if she had woken up right then, he would explain that even though it killed him inside, he was keeping quiet, just because she had asked him to. He was doing this for her even though it went against everything in his nature.
“Akh, stop,” he said, curling his hands into fists and smashing them into the mattress. “Stop!” More nonsense floating through him, the thoughts of a crybaby. His brain had become as disordered, as seedy, as a bus station waiting room, letting any vagrant come in and stretch across the seats. Finally, finally, he had mustered enough irritation with himself to propel himself out of bed with enough vigor, to walk across the carpet to the bathroom, get into the shower and get on with the goddamn day.
Under a scalding stream of water, he shampooed violently, scrubbed under his fingernails with a soft brush, made sure to balance one arm on the tiled wall before he lifted one foot, then the other, and scoured a pumice stone against the soles of his feet, no need to start this day with a fall in the shower, that kind of carelessness unacceptable. Vigilance, vigilance. In the bedroom, he dressed quickly, glancing over at the bed and Patricia’s immobile form. She was definitely awake by now; a light sleeper, there was no way she slept through his shouting. Pretending. Fine. He had to go to work anyway. He had patients to see. He fixed his collar and stepped into his shoes and strapped his pager to his belt and he was awake again, ready.
He walked across the room, one hand on the doorknob, ready to go, then he turned around, kicked his shoes off, and kneeled by his side of the bed. “Yek, doh, seh,” he counted off, as he had since his very first football practice at university, before starting a round of twenty pushups. They could call him murderer. He had names for them too, these cheetoh-eaters. These loiterers. Welfare-abusers. He exhaled loudly through his nose, counting them off by two, sat up for a minute, then went down for another round. Stupid planning to do pushups after he’d showered and dressed, but he wouldn’t get that sweaty and it was the only thing that seemed to open up the clenched fist sitting in his stomach, and could Patricia really pretend to keep sleeping through this?
“What time is it?” She asked him, sitting up in bed and turning on her side to face him, her large blue eyes liquid and already alert and anxious, even though she’d supposedly just woken up. Those eyes of hers—still the most hauntingly, frighteningly beautiful he’d ever seen, and they caught him for a second, killed him inside, until he remembered how ignored he was and went down for more.
“Twenty of seven,” he said, lowering himself so that his chest grazed the blue carpet. Ten more to go before he’d sit up again.
She sighed. “Bob coming back this week?”
“By this weekend, supposedly. Miller’s supposed to have the next two Saturdays.”
“Good,” she said, turning on her back again to look at the ceiling. “That man takes more damned vacations. Everything okay this morning?”
He stood up, sat on the bed to put his shoes on again. “Everything okay” meant how crazy are you feeling today, how much should she worry.
“I didn’t sleep, but don’t worry. I’m getting used to being the eunuch of Women’s Health.”
She rolled her eyes to the ceiling and turned over again on her side, her back to him now.
“Jesus,” she muttered. “Being smart about all of…this, the situation, doesn’t make you a goddamn eunuch, Ali. Though I know you don’t much care about what I think.”
“Okay,” he said, “Sure,” he said, “you’re right. I never listen to you.” He leaned over her, pecked her dryly on her cheek.
“Bye,” she said somberly, not looking at him again.
“Bye,” he sighed, on his way out of the bedroom. Maybe he shouldn’t have said it but it was true. What she wanted him to do did made him feel like some kind of eunuch or robot or mute embarrassed servant—always look straight ahead, never make eye contact, just keep walking to the clinic and act like you don’t hear them call your name and mispronounce your name and put dirt on the name that is his and hers and his children’s name, and he was never to just stop and turn around and look at them in the eyes and ask them to say what they said right into his face. It was unnatural what she wanted him to do, unnatural, and he knew it wasn’t going to keep them from coming back anyway. But he would keep doing what she asked him to for as long as he could bear it. He would do it for her because she had asked him, looked straight into his eyes and asked him to do this for her. And so he would do it because she never asked him for anything anymore and it was something he could give to her.
In the kitchen now, with no time for breakfast, so he stood at the sink and quickly peeled an orange and ate it two sections at a time, spitting the seeds into his hand then rinsing off his hands and face when he’d finished. Patricia’s insistent American advice, just ignore them, was something he’d been hearing from her for too long. Just ignore them. How many times had this worn phrase been pulled out over the years, applied to an amazing number of scenarios: the bastard drivers who cut them off in traffic, stole parking spaces, ignored stop signs and crosswalks, or the nasty night-shift nurse at St.Mary’s who sat on her ass for hours during her shift mumbling about his “Eye-rannian” something or other whenever he asked her to do anything, this when he was the fucking attending! It was always, just ignore them, it’s not worth it. “They’re looking for a fight,” she’d say,” they want a reaction, they want to provoke you.”
And now, with the protesters, it was the same things out of her: “Don’t stoop to their level. Don’t do anything crazy. Call the police if they come too close. Please. Call your lawyer.”
Call the lawyer, call the lawyer, the other refrain of every supposedly civilized person in this country, no one ever supposed to do anything without calling their lawyer. But. He could do this. He would do it for her, call the police, call the lawyer, not do anything himself and wait for them to disappear, as Patricia kept insisting they would. She’d told him to think of them like a bunch of strangers standing on a street corner. Just a bunch of crazies you’d pass by without even thinking about if we still lived in New York. What she didn’t know, however, what Patricia couldn’t understand, or wouldn’t understand, was that even though he knew none of their names, had no idea where they’d come from, they weren’t strangers to him. The truth was that he could picture their faces more easily than some of his neighbors, and it was unbearably impossible to ignore them when the hayfehnoons were with him so much of the time now. Sometimes, it felt like he knew everything about them. The rainbow shoelaces the one tall, large eyed woman liked to tie around her ponytail like a little girl, the overweight young woman with acne and heavy facial hair—he was sure she had poly-cystic ovary syndrome, the young guy who always had to haul the cooler from the back of the blue van and seemed to resent it more and more but said nothing to the marmulak… all of these stupid details stuck in his head, as though they were co-workers or classmates, identifiable even by the most meaningless, throwaway items. And Patricia wouldn’t want to hear it but they had a claim on him too, no matter what he wanted to tell himself, the way ghosts had a claim on the living in dreams, only what was scariest about these people was not their strangeness, their otherworldliness, but how damned familiar they were. Because if they were so familiar to him, didn’t the converse have to be true? Weren’t they just as familiar with him as well?
They’d never heard the sound of his voice, though, except for once, back in March, when they’d first shown up. He’d told the one, their ringleader, the marmulak because he looked like a lizard, get the fuck out of my way before I throw you into the fence, and just kept walking into his clinic. It had seemed a simple and obvious thing to say, the guy was blocking his way and Ali told him to get out. When he’d told Patricia, however, she had gotten pale and fluttery with anxiety, and made him call the lawyer, and then there was the headache of back and forth phone calls and everyone told him the same stupid thing: don’t talk, don’t look at them, don’t engage with them. Call the police if you have even the slightest reason to. Fine. He pretended to take their advice but he knew that these hayfehnoons weren’t disappearing anytime soon. They had decided on him; they weren’t leaving without trouble.
So call the lawyer, call the police, get the restraining order, look ahead and don’t say anything, he would do it, just like he could eat the oatmeal and nod at that bastard landscaper and pay the malpractice insurance and send out the school tuitions and try to ignore the imminent prostate or heart troubles that were almost inevitable in the next twenty or so years. This was life at fifty-two. A contest to see who could swallow the most shit.
Christie rose from her dog bed in the family room, ran over to him and smashed her face into his legs, demanding to be petted. Ali scratched behind her ears, then gently smoothed back her fur around her neck and back until, with her eyes half-closed and her tongue hanging out, she seemed hypnotized with happiness.
“I know, I know, I know,” he told her softly. “I love you, Christie, I love you good doggie, my good good doggie. Does my good doggie want to go outside?” he asked, walking through the family room and opening the door for her before she flew out, her retriever body gleefully making two full laps around the perimeter of the lawn before he’d even made it halfway down the driveway to collect the newspaper lying at the edge of the lawn. He watched as the fleet of underground sprinklers mobilized up and down the street, their sinister black heads emerging from the ground like covert operators. One of his fat, balding neighbors— Gerry George was his stupid name, Ali was almost certain— jogged past. He looked half-dead, his normally pink face a bright, frightening red, a V of sweat stretched from waistband to ass, darkening the gray cotton of his Boston College shorts. “Good morning,” Ali said as the man neared him, nodding once before he bent to pick up the paper, but the panting, gasping fatso staggered past, mere inches from Ali, without any acknowledgement.
Fuck you, you fat fucking heart attack, Ali thought as he clenched the newspaper in one hand like a baseball bat. He would still never get over how people in this country, on a daily basis, pretended not to see each other, conveniently forgetting they’d been previously introduced, politely refusing to acknowledge one another’s existence, not saying hello, not saying good morning, turning their head when you nodded, and this was acceptable in this society, forgotten, overlooked, not seen as the act of war it was. “Constipated fucking bastard,” he said as he turned back toward his house.
“Come on Christie,” he slapped at his pants with the newspaper to get her attention. “Let’s go, my good doggie. I’ll take you on a walk when I get home from work today, I promise you.”
He did a few games of fake chase with her, running a few steps towards her to send her flying into ecstatic motion until she neared him again, flirting with him to do it again, until he finally gave in and ran a lap with her around the yard, sending Christie into actual leaps of happiness. And when he walked back to the house to let the dog in and to lay the paper on the coffee table for Patricia, he thought that despite everything, despite this devil insomnia and the bastards in his head and the fact that in another half hour, an entire team of people would be yelling about his eternity in hell, well, at least he could still run a few miles, even with his one crippled knee, and didn’t look like he was about to die. For this he should consider himself lucky.
Elizabeth Shah-Hosseini graduated from Brown University with a degree in Comparative Literature and received her MFA in fiction writing from Hunter College. She lives in New York City and is currently at work on a novel.
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